Western US ponderosa pine forests have recently suffered extensive stand-replacing fires followed by hillslope erosion and sedimentation. These fires are usually attributed to increased stand density as a result of fire suppression, grazing and other land use, and are often considered uncharacteristic or unprecedented. Tree-ring records from the past 500 years indicate that before Euro-American settlement, frequent, low-severity fires maintained open stands. However, the pre-settlement period between about ad 1500 and ad 1900 was also generally colder than present, raising the possibility that rapid twentieth-century warming promoted recent catastrophic fires. Here we date fire-related sediment deposits in alluvial fans in central Idaho to reconstruct Holocene fire history in xeric ponderosa pine forests and examine links to climate. We find that colder periods experienced frequent low-severity fires, probably fuelled by increased understory growth. Warmer periods experienced severe droughts, stand-replacing fires and large debris-flow events that comprise a large component of long-term erosion and coincide with similar events in sub-alpine forests of Yellowstone National Park. Our results suggest that given the powerful influence of climate, restoration of processes typical of pre-settlement times may be difficult in a warmer future that promotes severe fires.